Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village

A visit from my mother last week meant the perfect opportunity to visit the Henry Ford and Greenfield Village, "America's Greatest History Attraction."

The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village have long been a favorite topic of discussion among bemused public history graduate students. Like the personality and legacy of their originator, the institution is a conglomerate of populism, boosterism and genuine ingenuity veiled with a touch of obfuscation. From the visitor's moment of entry, it is clear that this place is uncertain about its identity in the cultural heritage spectrum. The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village are about as expensive to visit as a day spent at a 6 Flags theme park. No discounts are available for AAM members or museum employees, but members of the armed forces are duly honored with discounted admission. THF is about history, yes, but it is not afraid to compete in the global market as an "attraction," showing 3-d Hollywood movies in its IMAX theater while employing first-rate docents to explain key artifacts both in the museum exhibits and in the various planted properties in Greenfield Village.

The collection of objects, from the chair in which Lincoln was assassinated to a factory component Model T to a 16th century cottage from rural England is diverse beyond compare. And yet, the explanatory text is text-book-ish in the museum and downright shallow in the Village. Nowhere is Henry Ford's idiosyncratic vision spelled out. Without carefully reading the sparse signage in the village, it would be possible to imagine that there really was a Swiss chalet (reproduction) across the street from George Washington Carver's boyhood home.

Two exhibits rose above the rest-- the Mattox Family House in Greenfield Village and the Rosa Parks Bus in the "With Liberty and Justice for All" exhibit in the Henry Ford Museum. The Greenfield Village web tour does not do justice to the Mattox house, but luckily, a docent who was present when we visited represented the place beautifully. The Mattox Family House was built and inhabited by a family of freed slaves in Georgia. Of all the strangely transplanted homes in Greenfield Village, this one felt the most homey and "real" somehow. The docent was warm and knowledgeable and treated the space with a degree of respect appropriate for someone's home while placing the family's situation in historical context.

The Rosa Parks bus was the culmination of the museum's exhibit that attempted to trace the development of American democratic values. This remarkable artifact, restored to a splendor it most likely had not possessed since the day it rolled off the factory floor, with the aid of a Save America's Treasures grant, brought home the iconic Montgomery bus boycott in a way that no documentary or book ever could. When the docent explained the details of the segregated busing system in Alabama and Rosa Parks' quiet act of civil disobedience, there wasn't a dry eye on the bus.

Watching the kids around me, possibly learning about this history for the first time, I was struck by a question that dogs the public history field. Is it better to learn, from the start, the full context of a historical event with its political machinations and converging players (see Historical Thinking Matters Rosa Parks Inquiry) or is it better to know a key story that rises to legend status with moral/values implications? I think that's how most of us learn about Rosa Parks for the first time-- as if she were a single courageous entity defying an oppressive system and launching a mass movement in her wake--- and yet there were so many underlying current that led to the moment of her decision to break the law. I suppose that's the beauty in being exposed to the same story over and over again as you mature and look at the world differently. That's the beauty of having a museum exhibit that you can return to you with your family in the future...

Curious George at the Jewish Museum

If your travels take you to New York City during the next two months, I would like to highly recommend the special exhibition at the Jewish Museum, Curious George Saves the Day: the Art of Margret and H. A. Rey. The exhibit makes delightful use of the museum's special exhibition space on the 4th floor, detailing a chronology of the Reys' career as children's book creators and their harrowing escape from Paris by bicycle. While providing enough original material to pique the interest of adults, the exhibit space was also appropriate for children with a well-designed interactive time line animation and a whimsical reading room.

While going through this exhibit, I couldn't help but think about the Irene Nemirovsky exhibit at the Jewish Heritage Museum down town. In times of political upheaval and human evil bubbling just beneath the surface, so much is left to chance and the whims of the individual people given authority to decide the fates of others. While the Reys' children's illustrations granted them a free pass to safety, Nemirovsky's fame and literary success could not save her from being branded as a foreigner and fed into a system of destruction.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Digital Harlem

This site was brought to my attention by the chief curator at the 9/11 Memorial, Jan Ramirez; as an institution we have a vested interest in staying abreast of developments in the digital history world. This website, and its associated blog, were awarded the inaugural Roy Rosenzweig Fellowship for Innovation in Digital History.

The site leans more toward the research resource end of the digital history/public history spectrum; it takes some concentrated exploration to get a sense of its potential. The ultimate payoff is something special-- a new depth of exploration offered by mapping a distinct collection of primary resources available to any researcher in New York City's municipal archives.

Check it out!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Portland Oregon Parks

First, I appologize for the long delay in posting. The month of May has run its course and summer is almost upon us. But while my readers are still thinking of spring, and while the NCPH conference I attended is not too far in the past, I will publish this post to be followed by two others in hopefully rapid succession. (June 7, 2010)

In a conference weekend replete with intellectual attractions and networking opportunities focused on oft-elusive "digital skills for public historians), I made sure to sign up for a walking tour which piqued my interest: Portland’s Park Blocks: Defining a City by its Open Spaces. The following few sentences are adapted directly from the tour description: The tour began with a brief (but fascinating) presentation on the founding of Portland’s park system from the first public spaces in the 1850’s to the Olmstead Bros. 1903 parks plan. The Park Blocks, north and south, formed the open space “spine” of the city initially as a fire break and then as a pattern for urban development in the central city and later in the 21st century a model for linear parks in the River District Urban Renewal Area known as the Pearl District. The tour will begin in the South Park Blocks and walk through the Mid-Town Blocks to the North park Blocks and end at Tanner Springs Park in the Pearl District. Led by Henry Kunowski, architectural historian.

Portland's parks are excellent examples of the "useful" urban greenspace which offers sojourners not a sense of wonder, but at least a brief repose and separation from an environment governed purely by human ambition. Portland's most modern parks, seek to uncover and reveal the nature beneath the city's domesticity. In doing so, they provide spaces both to admire the artistic vision of some rather clever landscape architects and to contemplate the coming together of a place (the wetland valley itself) and purpose (industry, trade) resulting in the contemporary space of the city.

I will close with a link to one of my favorite poems by Andrew Marvell, The Garden. Andrew had a keen sense of the human desire for otherness so often sought in parks and gardens and yet the ever-present hand of a creator in such places, melding wild-ness with order and design.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

NCPH and Great Lakes THATCamp

After traveling to Portland, OR, to attend NCPH and be a commentator on Jeremy Boggs and Amdanda French's session on digital history curricula, I am looking forward to attending Great Lakes THATCamp right here in East Lansing! I am planning to present a session on meaningful collaboration among public history (and digital humanities) entities and K-12 educators based on research I conducted last year while finishing my masters at NYU. Check out my session proposal here!

I am particularly interested in hearing from developers of digital humanities programs (since that's what THATCamp is all about) as to their professed education goals. Are they interested in promoting historical thinking skills? Critical thinking sills more broadly? Presenting content for shared cultural heritage? We all talk a lot about education (although "engagement" through social media has become almost as ubiquitous in digital history circles recently), but what kind of education are we providing? Do we provide the kinds of educational resources that teachers want? Should teachers want the kinds of educational resources we provide?

As I learned through my interviews with museum educators, archivists and creators of digital history projects, we imagine multiple audiences for our content, but when we are forced to justify our existence to legislators and funders, it's all education all the time.

Beginning with a dine-around I'm organizing in Portland at the NCPH conference on a similar topic, I hope to have a great couple of weeks debating education policy, goals and resources with public historians and digial humanists in March!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Writers and Real Estate

Oberlin professor, Anne Trubek offers this interesting perspective on the dismal prospect of turning writers' former homes into tourist destinations. Even as a great lover of literature and of museums, I'll admit that the only writer's home museums I've been to that felt worth writing home about are the James Joyce house in Dublin and the L. M. Montgomery home on Prince Edward Island in Canada. Dublin has so thoroughly embraced Joyce as its most iconic voice, that this makes a lot of sense. The same is true (perhaps even to excess!) of PEI.

The famous person's home as museum works best when that person inhabited the place thoroughly and for a significant period of time. Although a home can be turned into a resonant artifact with proper attention to interpretation, it ultimately needs to be worthy of such a transformation to warrant it.

Sunday, January 31, 2010


After almost a year of personal anticipation, I'm excited to announce that PhilaPlace is finally here! I had the pleasure of meeting Joan Savarino at the 2009 NCPH conference in Providence and hearing about this project as it neared the final stages of its development. In May, I attended a session at AAM, where my curiosity about this project was further stoked thanks to an intriguing presentation from the project's technical partner, Night Kitchen Interactive. From conception to completion, the PhilaPlace team has made a concerted effort to keep abreast of the latest trends in social history and in web 2.0 technology; their efforts have clearly paid off.

Enough introduction already-- what is PhilaPlace? PhilaPlace is a map-based interactive website all about the history of Philadelphia's neighborhoods. Oral history, archival documents and photographs combine with user-generated stories and videos to highlight significant places on the changing map of greater Philadelphia. Maps provide the fabric on which the content of this website can be accessed. The visitor can choose to view a contemporary streetscape on a present-day map, a 1962 land-use map, or maps from 1934, 1895 or 1875. Stories and images that appear as sites on this interactive map can be filtered by historical topic, contributor or neighborhood.

The website also provides a portal to a rich archive of content--- a feature that has become par for the course in well-designed digital humanities programs. This union of primary sources and snappy interactive features gives PhilaPlace the trappings of an excellent educational resource. PhilaPlace takes the content-based approach to providing educational resources preferred by many educators. (If you're curious about the opinions of some educators on digital primary sources, check out this survey I conducted last year on that very topic. Just let me know and I'll email you the password.) Instead of providing moment-by-moment lesson plans, PhilaPlace provides timelines, oral history resource lists and well-documented historical background, leaving the specifics to the educators.

One thing that PhilaPlace has that other public history websites may not have is a real-world component. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has developed a program of guided tours of the Northern Liberties and Soutwark neighborhoods of Philadelphia, appealing to a demographic desirous of an on-the-ground guided experience. As PhilaPlace grows both online and in the city itself, I will be interested to learn how these two modes of exploration complement one another.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Chicago History Museum and Zoo Lights

I had the privilege of spending this frozen New Years Eve in Chicago with friends, and being good museum-goers, we started our weekend with a visit to the Chicago History Museum. Since Catherine Lewis's The Changing Face of Public History has become a mainstay of graduate Public History programs, I felt that I already had an introduction to the museum's current iteration. I entered expecting a museum intensely conscious of its audiences and desirous of creating a broad-minded yet still mostly laudatory portrait of its namesake city.

My expectations, along with all of their inherent pit-falls were duly met. The museum's showcase historical exhibition Chicago: Crossroads of America pairs civics-textbook-like section headings with details that are fraught with controversy. My husband, a thoroughly educated layman, found the exhibition lacking in narrative drive. Exciting episodes like the 1968 riots were glossed over in favor of including a few Native American artifacts at the beginning and smidgeons from every form of labor (including commodities traders!) imaginable.

The highlight of the exhibit is its central feature, a trolley car first produced for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 accompanied by mannekins programmed to quote from contemporary letters representing a meeting of an out-of-town youth visitor, an African American woman activist and an immigrant laborer who helped to build the pavilions for the fair. I would have loved more like that!

This museum is most certainly worth a second visit and I look forward to returning to spend more time in the temporary exhibitions, often allowed to more fully embrace a single curatorial vision.

After visiting the museum, my intrepid party braved the cold and headed over to Lincoln Park Zoo to view the ZooLights illumination conspicuously sponsored by ComEd and Charter One. This family-friendly venture was fun and corny and pretty impressive, but I couldn't help feeling badly for the animals with all the unnatural illumination and blaring Christmas music. I might have to ruminate on this further at a later date.